After you get past gluing together teensy bits of plastic and then receiving your mauling at the claws of what should have been a tutorial, Kingdom Death: Monster finally shows you what it really is. Once you’re filling out the sheet for your settlement, you’ve arrived and now you can see clearly. Now you can see what the road ahead looks like. What’s that strange hulking shape up there? Is it getting closer?
The basic structure of Kingdom Death: Monster is a one-two rhythm of combat and then settlement development, combat and then settlement development, combat and then settlement development. I’m not sure which is the primary beat. I can’t decide if the monster fights are between the settlement phases, or if the settlement phases are between the monster fights. Each type of gameplay involves important decisions, unexpected twists, and potentially disastrous die rolls. Each is heavily dependent on the other. You can’t talk about Kingdom Death: Monster without taking into account both the combat and the settlement. This is no mere dungeon crawl about leveling up characters. It’s more like an RPG in which you play a settlement populated by doomed people. Each doomed person might have a character sheet, but these are just as likely to get thrown away when the character dies as they are to get marked up with higher and higher numbers as the character gets more powerful.
Your only persistent character sheet is the settlement sheet. The most prominent part of this settlement sheet is a sort of calendar. Each time you play a monster fight, you tick off the entry on the list, each representing a year. Many of the years are blank, which gives you room to track whatever future you build. You do this by drawing random events from a deck of oversized and ominously black cards (most of the cards in Kingdom Death: Monster are ominously black). For instance, if you draw the Murder event, the survivor with the highest insanity murders someone. You cross off the victim’s name on your sheet and then decide how to handle the murderer. If you exile him, he might come back several years later. So the event card will tell you to make a note to resolve a new event in three years. Now it’s looming in front of you. Should you have executed the murderer? Should you have made him the new leader? What will happen in three years?
Some events are hard-coded on every settlement sheet. For instance, introducing new quarry is fixed. The Screaming Antelope and Phoenix will always appear on the second and seventh year, respectively. Some fixed events seem to be part of the world-building. The Armored Strangers will always visit on the sixth year, at which point you will learn why the words “kingdom” and “death” are printed on the box. Before the Armored Strangers event, my settlement’s population was 12. After the Armored Strangers event, it was 7.
Some years on the calendar are marked with crossed sword icons. These are labeled “nemesis encounters” and this is where you will learn about inevitability. These are battles that come to you. They are rude interruptions in the usual one-two rhythm. Think of them as tests or elimination rounds. Can you handle this nemesis encounter in year 4? Okay, what about this one in year 9? This one in year 13? They’re waiting for you on the calendar. They will arrive whether you’re ready or not. On your first playthrough of Kingdom Death: Monster, you probably won’t be ready, because you have no idea what they mean.
You got a sense for the nemesis encounters before you even started playing. As you sorted through all the plastic sprues looking for pieces for the starting survivors and White Lion, you saw bits and pieces of the things that will be coming for you. Weird claws here, an oversized weapon there, a strange cape or curling tendril, a spiked helmet, an enormous wing. They’re like glimpses of some creature in the woods, or overheard snatches of folklore. Before you can play an encounter, you have to build its figure. Imagine seeing something on the horizon, its detail resolving as it comes closer and closer. You glue the legs together with the spiked shoes, then the arms holding the massive cleavers, you attach them to the torso, you fit together the toothed jawbones on its head, you mount its hulking cape wondering what those boxes are. You won’t know until the Butcher arrives that those aren’t boxes and the skulls among them aren’t even skulls. You won’t know what they are until you see the artwork in the rules book and read the gameplay effect of his Dreaded Trophies ability.
The first nemesis encounter is with the Butcher on year 4, which means you’ve only fought four battles (the “tutorial” battle against the White Lion was on year 0). He will always arrive. It’s there in black and white on the settlement sheet, a looming deadline to test how well you’ve done. The worst case scenario is that four of your survivors are slaughtered. The best case scenario is that they aren’t. Your previous battles — called “hunts” — netted you all sorts of bones, skins, and organs to craft weapons and armor. The Butcher just netted you whatever wounds you sustained and an open path to proceed to year 5. Okay, if you got lucky, maybe you grabbed one of his cleavers.
From a game design perspective, the nemesis encounters are the reason to challenge yourself with harder hunts. Each year, you get to choose not only what you’ll hunt, but at what difficulty you’ll hunt it. The harder fights are the most lucrative, but of course they’re the most dangerous. So to be on the safe side, you should just hunt a level one antelope every time. If there’s no hurry to improve your settlement, your survivors, and their equipment, level one antelopes will eventually get you where you’re going. Unfortunately, the nemesis icons on the calendar have other ideas.
I can’t speak firsthand to the replayability of Kingdom Death: Monster because I’m only on my first playthrough. But I can see there’s a framework to every game, a skeletal structure to test how you’re doing, to give you the sense that you’re preparing for something terrible and inevitable. The Butcher will always arrive on year 4, and the King’s Man isn’t far behind. Just past him is The Hand. I have no idea who or what they are, but I know what I’ve seen on those plastic sprues. These nemeses, which provide a sense of urgency, are the game’s melody. The one-two rhythm of battles and settlement development plays in the background. Accompanying it all is the staccato beat of die rolls, card draws, and forking decision, each littering the calendar and character sheets with their consequences. This is the dirge that accompanies the unfurling years. Look, up ahead. What’s that coming closer?